Pratfalls and irony
By Abby Frucht
uthor Abby Frucht, who teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, is an acclaimed novelist who has published five novels in an extensive writing career. The following nonfiction rumination regards her time spent as a judge at a recent literary contest. Its full title is "Pratfalls, Ironies, and Other Observations: One Judge's Account of a Literary Contest." A short biography of Frucht's may be found at the end of the piece.
Part 1 A year ago, when I was asked to join a panel of writers judging a college fiction contest, the first thing I thought of was my membership on a State Arts Council grants panel years earlier and our urgent discussion about which was more important, consensus or passion. Should we support only those applicants for whom all of the judges shared significant admiration, dismissing the ones that didn't earn at least some praise from each of us? Or was it better to call attention to stories that awakened a wildly positive response even if only in one of us, and even if that story left the other judges unmoved?
We called the second option the Passion Vote, and we agreed that we would each be permitted one of them. Since then I've been a judge in numerous capacities, and whether I am part of a panel, working solo, or selecting works for a final reader, I always keep a synapse fired up for that Passion vote, on the lookout for a manuscript I'd practically throw myself over a cliff for.
The location in which the college judges met last year being far for me to drive, I sat in my bedroom and Skyped myself into the gathering, careful not to tilt the screen in the direction of the bed, even though it was made. There were four of us judges, and once we'd introduced ourselves, we named our top three picks of the six finalists we'd each been sent in advance. But, since we had each been sent six different finalists, this meant we were discussing stories we hadn't all seen, so we needed to take a break and read a while. At that point an unexpected fifth judge arrived late, and it was discovered that one of the poetry judges had been asked to vote on the stories, while we fiction judges were expected to vote on the poetry, too, along with the essays, none of which had been sent to us. Such frustrations would prompt one of the judges, when we were asked to judge the same contest again this year, to email me in private, "Probably not, even if they simplify the format. It's a college writing competition, not the Nobel Prize for Literature." Meanwhile we all knew that if we weren't so busy doing this, we might be writing our own essays, poems and stories to be sent to other contests, contests judged anonymously by maybe each other.
Part 2 This year's college fiction contest did feature a simplified format, as there were just three fiction judges, each of whom were sent the same nine finalists six days before deadline, on which we are to convene via email to agree on the first, second, and third place winners. There would be no face-to-face meeting, and thus no Skype (no need to make the bed!) and as far as we know, there were no orphaned essays or poems waiting to be scrambled into the mix. Below are some of the notes I took while reading the nine entries on Monday morning, April 15th, notes modified in such a way that nobody but the writers might recognize the stories.
Story One: A kid and an animal engage in a primal battle of wits. Gun. Clumsy in places, melodramatic. But the mythic parameters do open out into real world stuff. My first notation is only a Maybe, but later it's the story I feel most viscerally.
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